CIRCUMCISION AND THE COPTS – A HISTORY: PART I
Jacques de Vitry (or James of Vitry) was a Crusader and Bishop of Acre at the time of the 5th Crusade (1213 – 1221 AD), which was directed at the Ayyubid state in Egypt. He had some knowledge of the Copts, and met some of them in person. He considered the Copts, who were called Jacobites[i] by the Crusaders, heretics because they did not recognise the outcome of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.[ii] When he wrote his Historia Orientalis in 1220 AD, he talked, inter alia, about the Copts, and described some of their practices, which he regarded as non-Christian and repugnant.[iii] One of the practices that drew his attention was circumcision, about which he wrote: “Ever since the Enemy sowed discord in them, and blinded for a long time by a lamentable and miserable error, most of them practice the circumcision of their newborns of both sexes, in the manner of the Saracens. They do not wait for the grace of baptism to make the circumcision of the flesh unnecessary, just as in the blossoming of the fruit the flower fades.”[iv]
This is just one piece of evidence that circumcision had been practiced in Coptia[v] in the thirteenth century. As we move on to subsequent centuries more evidence emerge that circumcision became widely followed by Copts. We have this not just from European travellers to Egypt[vi] but also from the Copt, Josephus Abudacnus (Yusuf ibn Abu Dhaqn),[vii] who wrote in Latin while in Europe in the early 17th century his Historia Jacobitarum Seu Coptorum.[viii] On the chapter dealing with Coptic baptism, he touched on circumcision: “Circumcision is diligently observed, and that on the eighth day after birth, and this not only in the principal cities where there is a great concourse of people, but also in villages, and in the country, with the greatest rigour.”[ix] The strength of the circumcision tradition within Coptia has even suggested to him that bizarre and erroneous opinion that the Copts (also called Jacobites) had descended “of the ancient Patriarch Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham.”[x] To this day, circumcision is practiced within Coptic societies in Egypt and Sudan, as within Muslims, and clearly regarded as traditional.
The truth is that circumcision is not original but foreign to the Copts – it was a Muslim tradition.
Returning to de Vitry, one finds that the evidence that circumcision was a problem in Coptia of the 13th century is not in dispute. What can, however, be matters of debate are the time the practice began within Coptic society, the extent to which it was spread then, the degree to which it was accepted by Copts, and whether it was performed initially on both sexes or on boys only. It is suggested by de Vitry that the Copts started practicing circumcision “Ever since the Enemy sowed discord in them, and blinded for a long time by a lamentable and miserable error,” by which he means since the Copts rejected the theology of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and separated from both Rome and Constantinople about Christology. But, by adding that the Copts circumcised their children “in the manner of the Saracens (Muslims)”, one is driven to think that he actually mean that the practice began sometime after the Arab occupation of Egypt in 642 AD. If that is what he really meant, he does not pin it down to any particular period within the five or six centuries that had intervened between the Arab Conquest in the seventh century and the thirteenth century in which he made his viewpoint.
De Vitry definitely thinks that the Copts knew not circumcision at least until Chalcedon. What do Coptic sources say? Unfortunately, Coptic sources are largely silent on this matter, but there is important evidence from the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria that the Copts did not circumcise their children in the ninth century, evidence that has largely been ignored by historians and anthropologists. John II,[xi] the biographer of the 52nd Coptic patriarch, Joseph [Yu’sab] I (830 – 849 AD), tells us an interesting story about the relationship between the Copts and the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) of the time:
“There was at that time a bishop named John, whom the father, Abba James [50th Coptic patriarch (819 – 830)], had ordained for the land of the Abyssinians. Now the king of the Abyssinians had gone forth to war. Then the people became disaffected, and drove away that bishop, and appointed another of their own free choice, thus breaking the canon. And the aforesaid bishop returned to Egypt and took up his abode at the Monastery of Baramus in Wadî Habîb, because he had first become a monk there. But the Lord, who loves mankind, and desires to save them and restore them to the knowledge of the truth, did not allow that country and its inhabitants to remain in their disobedience, but he raised up against them the evangelical throne once more.”[xii]
As it seems, Abyssinia was hit by defeat in war, drought, famine and disease; and this prompted the king to write to Patriarch Joseph I begging him to send Bishop John back, to which the Coptic prelate obliged.[xiii] However, on the return of Bishop John to Abyssinia, a new complication arose:
“After this, Satan, the enemy of peace, suggested an idea to some of the people of that country. Accordingly, they waited upon the king, and said to him: “We request thy majesty to command this bishop to be circumcised. For all the inhabitants of our country are circumcised except him”. And the working of Satan was so powerful that the king approved this proposal, namely that the aged bishop should be taken and circumcised, or else that he should return to the place whence he had come. And when the bishop recollected the hardships of his journeys, both when he departed and when he returned, and then of what he would experience again, he dreaded the difficulties of the road both by land and water. So he said: “I will submit to this, for the salvation of these souls, of which the Lord has appointed me shepherd without any merit of mine. Yet now Paul the apostle enjoins us, saying: ‘If any man is called without circumcision, let him not be circumcised’”. So when he made this concession to them, God manifested a miracle in him, as he wrote to our father the patriarch, Abba Joseph; namely, that when they took him to circumcise him, and stripped him, they found the mark of circumcision in him, as if he had been circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. And he swore in his letter that he knew nothing of this before that day. Thus the king and the people of the country were satisfied, and rejoiced greatly over this wonder, and accepted the bishop with joy.”[xiv]
The “mark of circumcision” which the Abyssinians found on him, and which the biographer John II calls a “miracle”, might have been what is called in medicine “congenital circumcision” – a condition in which an individual is born with deficient foreskin (prepuce) that gives the impression that the person had been circumcised.[xv] Bishop John must have had it since his birth but in his innocence he didn’t know the difference. Be it as it may, one thing is clear – the Coptic bishop, as the story tells us, was not humanly circumcised by the time of his arrival in Abyssinia for the second time. Rather than go through the difficult and hazardous journey back to Egypt, and in order to save the souls of his Abyssinian flock, Bishop John accepted going through circumcision in his old age. He knew that circumcision wasn’t a Christian practice, and so he invoked St. Paul’s words: “If any man is called without circumcision, let him not be circumcised.”[xvi]
The story of Bishop John clearly shows us that the Copts, unlike the Abyssinians, did not know circumcision in the ninth century. Furthermore, they did not accept circumcision on theological grounds. There is nothing in the story to suggest that Bishop John’s case (not being circumcised) was singular. A few authors have stipulated that circumcision has always been practiced by the Egyptians; that it was Pharaonic tradition; that it continued throughout the Roman-Greek period; that the Egyptians even after they became Christian nation continued to circumcise their children. Otto F. A. Meinardus, in his Christian Egypt, Faith and Life,[xvii] certainly gives that impression, and that the Copts inherited circumcision from their ancient forefathers. Whatever the case was before the Christianisation of Egypt, and even then the evidence for that is disputable at several points,[xviii] Meinardus does not present us with any proof that the Copts, after their conversion to Christianity, or in the first centuries after the Arab occupation, practiced circumcision. Furthermore, he either does not know of the story of Bishop John or intentionally ignores it.
The truth of the matter, but not all of it, is what the French author Jacques Tagher has put under “What Copts took from Muslims”: “Amongst the customs that the Copts took from the Muslims early is the circumcision of children, which had been banned by Christianity and wasn’t practiced in Egypt prior to the Arab invasion”.[xix]
But, if the Copts did not practice circumcision in the ninth century, at least until 866 AD when John II wrote the Biography of Joesph I, for over two centuries after the subjugation of Egypt by the Arabs, when did they exactly start performing it? When did it spread widely and become accepted tradition? What social and political changes within Egypt and Coptic society influenced its introduction, first as an optional custom and later as a compulsory matter? Was there any resistance to its introduction? What social and theological debate went on? How can we characterise the adoption of a foreign tradition that ran contrary to our Christian teachings? And what about female circumcision? In a few words, why introduce (or reintroduce if you really believe it existed prior to the Christianisation of Egypt) a practice that had become defunct for good for many centuries?
We shall try to answer all these questions in the next parts.
How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (28 January 2012), CIRCUMCISION AND THE COPTS – A HISTORY: PART 1, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/circumcision-and-the-copts-a-history-part-1/
If you liked Part I, you may want to read Part II too, at: Dioscorus Boles (16 February 2012), CIRCUMCISION AND THE COPTS – A HISTORY: PART II, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/circumcision-and-the-copts-a-history-part-ii/
… and Part III: Dioscorus Boles (24 June 2012), CIRCUMCISION AND THE COPTS – A HISTORY: PART III,
[i] By Jacobites is meant the anti-Chalcedonian Christians, those who rejected the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, mainly Copts and Syrians. They were called Jacobites after the bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradaeus (543 – 578 AD), who had an important role in consecrating bishops in the Coptic Church during its persecution by the Byzantines.
[ii] On the character of Jacques de Vitry, see: Robert Payne, The Crusades, A History (London; Robert Hale; 1994); p. 290. He writes about de Vitry: “His was not an altogether pleasant character, for he was moralistic to a fault, pompous, self-assured, and apoplectic. His hatred bordered on biting contempt. Heretics, schismatics, half-castes, lawyers, usurers, and women dressed in finery received violent tongue-lashings from him.”
[iii] The other two practices he mentioned were the auricular confession and tattooing. Christian Cannuyer, Coptic Egypt, the Christians of the Nile (New York, Harry N. Abrams, 2001); pp. 130-131.
[iv] Coptic Egypt, the Christians of the Nile; p. 130.
[v] The term Coptia is used to indicate the Coptic nation. For more on its meaning, please see: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/coptia-%E2%80%93-coining-a-new-word-the-copts%E2%80%99-physical-space-community-and-nation-%D9%83%D9%88%D8%A8%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%8C-%D9%83%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A9-%D8%AC%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%AA/
[vi] Otto F. A. Meinardus, Christian Egypt, Faith and Life (Cairo; American University Press; 1970); pp. 329-332. Meinardus compiles the evidence by Johann Michael Wansleben (1664), Antoine Gonsale (1665-1668), Richard Pococke (1736-1741), Carsten Niebuhr (1762), James Bruce (1768-1773), C. S. Sonnini de Manoncour (1777-1780), W. G. Browne (1792-1798), and John Lewis Burckhardt (1813-1814). The focus in his pages was on female circumcision.
[vii] For Josephus Abudacnus (also called Josephus Barbatus) read: Alastair Hamilton, An Egyptian traveller in the republic of letters: Josephus Barbatus or Abudacnus the Copt. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, Volume 57, 1994.
[viii] The book appeared in Latin, after Abudacnus’ death, for the first time in 1675 AD, under the full title Historia Jacobitarum Seu Coptorum in Aegypto, Libya, Nubia, Aethiopia Tota, & Cypri Insulae Parte Habitantium. It was translated into English by E. Sadier in two editions, 1692 and 1693 AD, under the title: The History of the Copts commonly called Jacobites under the Dominion of the Turk and Abyssinian Emperors with some geographical Notes or Descriptions of the several Places in which they live in those Dominions. I use the 2nd ed. (London; R. Baldwin; 1693).
[ix] The History of the Copts commonly called Jacobites; p. 16.
[x] Ibid; p. 2.
[xi] John II wrote in 866 AD the biographies of the 47th to the 55th Coptic patriarchs (from Mina I [767 – 774 AD] to Shenute I [858 – 880 AD]). See: Coptic Encyclopedia; Vol. 4; 1991; History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria.
[xii] Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria (1910) Part 4: Mennas I – Joseph (849 AD). Patrologia Orientalis 10; pp. 508-509.
[xiii] History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria; pat 4; pp. 509-510.
[xiv] History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria; pat 4; p. 511.
[xv] For congenital and acquired circumcision, see: James T; A causerie on circumcision, congenital and acquired. S Afr Med J. 1971 Feb 6;45(6):151-4. You can find a PFD copy here: http://archive.samj.org.za/1971%20VOL%20XLV%20Jan-Jun/Articles/02%20February/1.7%20A%20CAUSERIE%20ON%20CIRCUMCISION,%20CONGENITAL%20AND%20ACQUIRED,%20Theodore%20James.pdf
[xvi] 1 Corinthians 7:18.
[xvii] Christian Egypt, Faith and Life; pp. 318-341.
[xviii] The Legacy of Egypt; 2nd ed.; edited by J. R. Harris (Oxford; The Clarendon Press; 1988); p. 127.
[xix] Jacques Tagher, Coptes & musulmans (Le Caire, 1952). I used the Arabic version which was published by the Coptic Associations in 1984 under the title اقباط و مسلمون منذ الفتح العربى الى عام 1922 م; p. 268. The English translation is mine.